Russia has begun staging “referendums” in occupied Ukraine as part of a plan to annex more of the embattled country’s territory, in what Kyiv and western states called sham votes that would never be recognised under international law.
Moscow appointees in Russian-held areas of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of eastern and southeastern Ukraine said voting would run from Friday to Tuesday, and the Kremlin said it would then complete the annexation “quite quickly”.
The supposed referendums were only announced this week, when Russia also revealed that it would call up 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine and warned that it could use nuclear weapons to hold on to territory annexed from its neighbour. The staged votes mimic Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and come as Moscow’s troops are on the back foot after Kyiv’s military drove them out of the northeastern Kharkiv province and launched a slower counteroffensive in the southeast.
“They are stopping people right in the street and forcing them to vote,” said Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the legal Ukrainian mayor of occupied Mariupol. “One could call it all a circus, if not for the active role of gunmen,” he added, alleging that pairs of self-styled election officials were also going door-to-door “with a ballot box and ballots, and two armed men”.
Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, who is not in the occupied city, said people’s refusal to vote had prompted Russia to “bring in lots of people on big buses from Crimea to help film propaganda news clips about the supposed enthusiasm of locals in Melitopol”.
Moscow appointees and local collaborators in occupied areas insisted residents were genuinely eager to vote and become subject to Kremlin rule. Marina Zakharova, so-called chairwoman of the election commission in the Moscow-controlled Kherson region, said she expected voter turnout “to exceed 80 per cent”. Ukrainian officials warned that everyone involved in the “referendums” would ultimately face criminal charges, and said Russia could draft local men into its military if the annexation went ahead.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not know exactly when Russia would annex the four regions — which its troops do not control in full — but said he was “sure it would happen quite quickly”. He emphasised that once Russia regarded these regions as part of its territory and subject to its constitution, it would defend them with full force — which former president Dmitry Medvedev said this week could include the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Western states, including Ireland, have denounced Russia’s plans, and G7 countries and the European Union said jointly that “any referenda held under conditions of Russian military presence, intimidation and forced deportation cannot be free or fair”.
“Any annexation of Ukrainian territory would be a gross violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the UN Charter,” the top diplomats of G7 states and the EU said, calling on all countries “to unequivocally condemn any referenda and not to recognise the results”. The votes were staged as a team of experts commissioned by the United Nations human rights council reported that war crimes had been committed in four areas of Ukraine that it investigated, all of which were partly occupied by Russian troops earlier this year.
Erik Møse, the chairman of the panel, said it had been “struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited” and found that Russian soldiers had committed acts of “sexual violence, torture and cruel and inhuman treatment”.
“The commission has documented cases in which children have been raped, tortured and unlawfully confined,” he added.